Freedom in the Med…Fabulous Florence

So now we are leaving France and heading around to Italy.  Our first stop is Florence, well Livorno…no, La Spezia.  Confusing, I know.  You see, when we originally booked this trip we were scheduled to port in Livorno.  I chose this sailing because it was the only one that listed Livorno as the port.  It is closer to Pisa and Florence and from what I had heard, just an easier port to deal with.  However, as we got closer, Royal Caribbean emailed me with the change to La Spezia.  Disappointed? Yep.  Especially since I had already booked my tours from Livorno, but what can you do?

Speaking of tours I had booked…I had made reservations for tours in all three Italian ports through the same tour company, Italy Tour Sharing.  Their website is super easy to navigate, and you can search for a group that has already been formed, or you can start your own group and make it available for others to join to bring down the price, which is what I did.

In Florence, I booked the full day Pisa & Florence tour.  We had 5 people in our group, and I opened it up to 8 people total.  Eventually, one other couple did join us and they were lovely!  Each party is a separate reservation though so you are not on the hook if these people that you don’t know are no shows.

We were met at the port by our driver who had a sign with my name on it.  We all loaded into his Air Conditioned minivan and started the trek towards Pisa.  Our driver kept up a running commentary about what we were seeing and answered any and all questions in excellent English.

A note about Pisa…there is no shade. None. And it was Hot. But…it is absolutely a must see at least once.

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See how pretty!!  And just look at that cloudless sky!  We were already toasty warm and it was only like 10am by this point!

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The one thing I will tell you about Pisa…if you have to go potty…use the restrooms here.  You have to pay like 2 Euros each, but they are clean and stocked!

Back into the van, we headed towards Florence…again, an hour away.   But once again our driver was chatty and informative.  He pointed out the hills where the famous white marble is mined.  The same mine that supplied the marble for possibly the most famous statue in all the world, David by Michelangelo.  Here is the mine:

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See?  At the top?  That is marble, not snow!  Our driver estimated that the marble would run out in just over 200 years if the current rate of mining was maintained so you better get your orders in now.

Our next stop was an amazing look out terrace that gave us the full view of Florence at our feet.  It was incredible.

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We had a great view of the Roman wall that withstood the siege of Henry 4 for 10 days in 1082!!!

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Next, we headed into the city to explore.  Here is where having people other than your family on the tour can be really cool…the awesome couple that I mentioned above?  They asked if we would mind stopping to see the Great Synagogue of Florence.  Of course we said yes…we had not even looked at it as someplace to see but hey, why not?

And boy, it is impressive!!

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We did not go inside, but it is apparently amazing.  This was something that was not even on our radar, but because of the new folks in our group we saw a truly impressive building.

Then, we split up to see different things with a set meeting time and place.  For us, well you know us…we went to eat!

Our driver recommended a place called Trattoria Le Antiche Carrozze. This place is a gem!  Good food, cold wine, really cute place!  I think we all got pizza and it was fantastic!  The prices were reasonable too!

After lunch we wandered around Florence, in the general direction of Ponte Vecchio.  We walked through Piazzale degli Uffizi:

Stopped to see the Santa Maria del Fiore:

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Stopped for a rest in Piazza della Signoria:

And finally made it to the most famous bridge in Florence.  While everyone should totally see this in person, its pretty crowded actually inside the bridge and as I may have mentioned before, it was hot so we were content to just see the bridge, then go find gelato!

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We headed back to our assigned meeting spot, found some yummy gelato and of course rubbed the nose of the Fontana del Porcellino to ensure our return to Florence.

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We all then gratefully piled back into the van, where our driver handed out water and blasted the air conditioning for the ride back to the ship.

I am always nervous when I use a new tour company, but Italy Tour Sharing was off to a good start!  If our tours in Rome and Naples were on par with this one, we would be good to go!

We made it back to the ship in plenty of time and enjoyed our dinner in the Main Dining Room then headed off to bed…Another long day of touring tomorrow…IN ROME!!

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Freedom in the Med…Nice Nice

Today we were in Nice, more specifically Villefranche-Sur-Mer.  This port is not big enough for the large cruise ships to dock, so Freedom has to drop anchor offshore and we all have to “tender” to the dock.  The tender boats are the property of the local port and not the cruise line so they are always different.  Here are the ones we used:

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They are a bit on the small side compared to some we’ve used in the past, but they were speedy and continuous so there was no real wait to get to a tender.  Today our tour was one I purchased through Viator.  Villefranche Shore Excursion: Small-Group Monaco and Eze Half-Day Tour.  This one was technically another half day tour, but I had a plan for the second part of the day so we would have a long, busy day away from the ship.   On this tour we would be visiting Eze, a medieval village with a famous perfumery; Monaco, with the changing of the guard, and Monte Carlo then back to Villefranche.

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Here is our approach to the port on the tender.  I was already thinking how pretty this port area was but I had no idea what was to come.  We found our tour guide and the rest of the people on our tour (three single young ladies) and headed to our first stop, the Village of Eze.

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Eze is famous for its stunning views, its amazing botanical garden and the Chapelle de la Sainte Croix, the oldest building in Eze built in 1306.  I recently learned that this town was a favorite of Walt Disney.  I can certainly see why.

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These views were amazing and the pictures in no way do them justice.  We stopped at Chappelle de la Sainte Croix.  Like many religious buildings, the very simple exterior:

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Gives way to an absolutely amazing interior.

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This is the meeting place for the White Penitents of the Roman Catholic church, known for their care of plague victims.

We then made our way up to the Jardin Botanique d’Eze.  This garden has an amazing collection of succulents which had to be thriving in the unbelievable dry heat that we had the whole trip!

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Our next stop, actually just about five minutes away was our tour of the the Laboratory Fragonard.  So if I’m being honest, I was really not looking forward to this.  As in Turkey and Croatia, I avoid these “factory tours” like the plague if I can.  They tend to be nothing more than sales pitches, which sometimes can be downright aggressive.   However, this one was really not bad.  It was interesting and while there was a definite pitch at the end, it wasn’t terribly aggressive (not that we didn’t end up spending money, but at least we didn’t have to lug a carpet home with us!).

Our next stop would be the Principality of Monaco.  Our tour guide gave us plenty of commentary along the way as she deftly navigated the narrow, really high, right on the cliff roads,  We stopped in time to watch the changing of the guard as well as shop for an AS Monaco jersey…since Monaco just won the Ligue Une, not a single store had one and we had to settle for a scarf.

Monaco screams wealth from every street corner.  If you consider that 1 Million Euros will purchase a room of approximately 161 square feet, you can see why a Monaco address is its own status symbol.  Here’s one of the parking lots:

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Then the Changing of the Guard:

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Then it was time to meet our guide back at Cathédrale Notre-Dame-Immaculée, or Saint Nicholas Cathedral where Princess Grace and her husband are buried.

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Our next stop was Monte Carlo.  We were there right after the Grand Prix so they had not yet removed the stall numbers from the street, which was cool to see!  Then the most famous casino in the world.  As you know, I love me some casino. At this time, however, the Monte Carlo Casino was closed to the GenPop and open to invited guests only.  Believe it or not, I didn’t get an invitation.  Nor was I dressed for the casino, which has a very strict dress code that apparently did not include shorts and tank top.

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This casino is massive.  In fact it is too big to fit in one picture, so the powers that be have created a solution…a circular mirror that reflects the entirety of the casino facade…its really cool.

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Also, I can guarantee you that everyone of those cars in the reflection are Ferrari, Bentley, Rolls, etc.  They were really pretty.  Here’s me eyeballing the Casino entrance…I shoulda made a run for it!

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We then met our tour guide for the ride back to Villefranche.  Now was the moment I had been waiting for…lunch!  Our guide made a couple of recommendations, one pricey and one more reasonable.  However, I had one goal…Mussels. And Rosé. And a sea view.  And I got all of them!!!

We asked her specifically where she would go to eat mussels and she pointed us to a seaside cafe called Lou Bantry. We sat on the patio, I ordered my glass (okay carafe) of chilled wine and my moules frites.  Oh My Goodness!!! Here’s my “bowl” of mussels:

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It was HUGE!  And amazing!  And it was at that moment I realized that I never wanted to leave.  I love Villefranche-sur-Mer.  If I ever move overseas, this is where you can find me.  Here is our view:

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See how happy I look??? This is my happy place.  But eventually we did have to leave, as much as that broke my heart, I still did want to see our other stops.  Here’s a quick spoiler for you…I did love our other stops, but I still want to be here.  This one felt like home to me.  I can’t wait to get back there…I am not sure when it will happen, but I know it will.

I did eventually get back on the tender to go back to the Freedom.  Our next stop is Florence.  By the way…here’s our ride:

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She’s a beauty and since I have been on her three times now, with a forth time scheduled, I kind of think of her as mine.  But you can ride her too!!

 

Freedom in the Mediterranean…More Barcelona!

For our last full day in Barcelona, I had scheduled two tours through Viator.  First a guided tour of Sagrada Familia in the morning, then a Flamenco Show at Tablao Cordobes in the evening.  Believe it or not, this was my first time scheduling through Viator, I usually book directly through the tour company.  Here is why I didn’t this time…Paying in US Dollars as opposed to Euros.  Booking directly through a tour company usually  means you pay in cash on the day of the tour, in Euro’s.  I am not opposed to doing that usually, but with five people on the trip, that’s a lot of cash to haul around every day.  So booking on Viator means both that I could pay ahead of time and that I could pay in US dollars.  Then, I just have to remember my vouchers…this is never been a certainly so I really like that I can just show them on my phone!  So first up? A guided tour of Sagrada Familia through Viator.

Our only hiccup of the morning came when I was asked to read a map to get us to the Julia Travel office to begin the tour.  I’m not sure if I have mentioned this but I am TERRIBLE with maps.  I am good at following directions, but if I have to navigate via map?  Well, lets just say it’s lucky I like to wander!

Fortunately, I am aware of this adorable trait so I always leave super early to  account for the fact that I am most certainly going to get lost so we were not late for our check-in.  We met our tour guide, and after a bit of confusion (one party thought that they had signed up for the tour in a different language) we were on our way to the famous church.  This is one of the most important tourist sites in Barcelona, perhaps in Spain, so there are a lot of people there.  Always.  All around.  And vendors.  Everywhere.

But thanks to our “Skip the Line” tickets, we breezed right in, got our tour guise boxes and headphones and headed in the gate.  We began our tour at the Passion Façade on the west side of the church.  Meant to symbolize the Passion of Christ, this façade is very severe and angular.

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We learned where Gaudi even managed to get himself into the scene (He’s the old man beside the knights on the first level!).

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We then moved inside.  I have no words for how awesome the inside of this church is when you first walk in.  Gaudi wanted to use light as well as architecture in his design.  I’d say he succeeded pretty spectacularly (also, kudos to my son for snapping this picture with his iPhone!!).

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The interior is meant to mimic nature so the columns look like trees that branch out at the top; the stained glass is colored so that as the sun moves around the church, different colors shine through; there really are no flat surfaces anywhere in the interior (except the floor of course!).

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Then we moved back outside to the other side, called the Nativity Façade.  This façade is meant to celebrate the birth of Christ.  It is typically Gaudi though, his naturalistic style can be seen throughout with animals and trees interspersed liberally in the design.  This facade is the complete opposite of the stark west side, Passion Façade.

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The Glory Façade, which will, by all accounts, be the largest and most striking façade  is still under construction and covered by scaffolding and tarps.  This will be the primary entrance to the church and is meant to represent the Path to God.

The church is scheduled to open in 2026…exactly 100 years after Antonio Gaudi’s death and I, for one, can’t wait to see it!

Our tour ended in a small building next to the west façade that Gaudi used as an office, and was also used as a school house for local children.  Pro Tip:  This is the ONLY air-conditioning on the grounds…since temps were in the upper 90’s our entire trip you can imagine how popular this little two room building was!

That night, we also had tickets to a Flamenco show at Tablao Flamenco Cordobes.  With Viator, I had the option of just buying tickets for the show, buying tickets for the show + a drink, or the show + a drink + dinner.  Since we all know I am a firm believer in prepaying for my alcohol, I chose the show+drink ticket.  I really vacillated about adding dinner, but ultimately I did not…and boy am I glad (but we’ll get to that later!).

We were ushered into the seating area, and I immediately realized that one benefit to eating dinner there was procuring front row seats to the show as they were all already taken and we were only the second family seated.  We were all handed our drinks…Sangria obviously, and the show began.

These people are crazy talented.  The dancers and singers alike.  The energy they put out, night after night, several times a night is unbelievable.

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The above shot is a good view of what the room looked like.  A Tablao is the wooden stage where the singers and dancers perform.  Overall I think we all really liked the show, but now we were hungry!!

We decided to just walk along La Rambla since we were already there.  We knew that the restaurants there are more touristy, but we were hungry so we were just really looking for someplace with no wait.  We made it approximately one block to a place called Ultramarinos.

So from a street view perspective, it looked fun and the menu had enough variety to ensure that no one would go hungry.  Plus, they could seat a party of five immediately, which was when we wanted to be seated!

I chose my dinner exclusively from the Tapas section.  I have decided that tapas is the greatest way to eat ever.  Period.  Picking five or six “little plates” allows me to taste a bunch of different items and since I have issues making decisions at restaurants, this is genius.  Jarod and Carly both got Paella (different kinds), Tyler got a burger (I know, I know.) and Mom got  (I think) a chicken sandwich…maybe?  At that point I was so in love with my food she could have gotten Krabbie Patties and I wouldn’t have noticed.  But everyone enjoyed their food immensely no matter what they got.   So if you find yourself hungry on La Rambla, head to Ultramarinos.  Is it kitchy?  Yep.  But it is good food and fun so I would definitely head there again.

Next up, we FINALLY board the ship and head off on to France!!  Plus dinner at Chops!

Two Majestic Trips…One Review!

Because I spend quite a bit of time in the casino when I cruise…and because I don’t often win…Royal Caribbean sometimes takes pity on me and gives me certificates for free cruises.  These are not big, fancy week long cruises on their big, fancy ships.  They are usually 3 or 4 day cruises on the older, smaller ships…but hey! They’re free!!

I had booked a cruise for February and wanted to take my father for his birthday (his birthday is really in October, and I made him a really cool card!) See:

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But then…In January, he found out that his work would not give him the time off so my brother got the spot instead.  (Dad gets a much better cruise later on, but you’ll have to wait for that one!)  So that is the first Majesty cruise.  A three night trip to Nassau and Cococay.  Certainly a quick trip, but Port Canaveral is not too bad a drive so easy enough for a weekend get-away

Then, I got another certificate in the mail for a free cruise so I hatched a plan to use this one for bribery!  I needed to pick up my son from college in Ft. Lauderdale and move him back home for the summer.  I drive a SUV, but my BIL drives a BIG SUV!  So I thought, “If I take him on the cruise, he will go with me the rest of the way from Port Canaveral to Ft. Lauderdale, help me move the kid out of the dorm, then we can split the drive back home!” It was a genius idea!  But that’s not how it worked out…It was even better than that!

You see, while we were on that first Majesty cruise, my brother earned a certificate for money off a future cruise so we decided to book a second cabin for the May four night cruise and bring Katie along as well!  Then I was able to get Jarod to convince a local college buddy to store some of his stuff over the summer, so now I didn’t need the big SUV.  It all worked out really well, mostly!

So since both cruises went to the same places, on the same ship I am going to combine them into one review…that may or may not work but we’ll see how it goes!

First up, a quick pit stop at Grills Seafood Deck & Tiki Bar. Why? Because boarding doesn’t start until 11am so what else are you supposed to do?  Everyone needs a pre-boarding drink!  And a quick picture!

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The Majesty of the Seas is an older, smaller ship in Royal Caribbean’s fleet.  But they have made some upgrades, most notably on the pool deck where the addition of water slides was a big hit with the Under Six member of our party!

Another big hit with the Pre-K crowd was our stateroom attendant’s mastery of the famed “Towel Animal” left in the room after evening turndown service.  I am lucky that I have always had really good stateroom attendants and these two cruises were no different!  Here is one of our nightly visitors!

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As a quick side note…I left those sunglasses on the plane ride to Barcelona so if you flew American Airlines last month and found those awesome Minnie Mouse glasses in the seat pocket, can I have them back please?

But back to the Majesty.  Our itinerary was the same on both cruises but in different order.  In addition, the four day cruise also had a day at sea, while the three day cruise just had the port stops.  So first up…Cococay, Bahamas.  Royal Caribbean’s private island.  This is a tender port, which means you have to get off your big ship, onto a smaller ship in order to get to the island.  Really like a water taxi service.  Because of this, tender ports are susceptible to weather disruptions and are often missed.  We had amazing weather on both cruises so we were able to visit twice.

Here is what the Majesty looks like from the tender boat.  The water around the island is not deep enough for her to pull closer so she really does have to park a bit away.

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And that little boat by her side that looks like a barnacle is one of the tenders.  But they really are a nice little ride, provided the water is not choppy.  You can see our seas looked like glass. Nice and smooth!

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And here is a little part of the island.  This has been totally built by Royal Caribbean so everything and everyone on the island works for the cruise line.  This makes for a nice sanitized day at the beach, which is great and I really like Cococay, but sometimes I miss local flavors and stuff like that.  Still, it is beautiful.

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We had some cloud cover as you can see, but it never rained.  A newer addition to the island is the floating bar.  Basically a tiki hut that floats by the shore.  It is connected by a giant chain so if the water gets rough, they can reel it in.

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It does have a limit on how many people can be on it at one time…presumably so it doesn’t sink…so they kind of do a “one off, one on” scenario once it gets full.  I haven’t actually been out there yet, but it certainly looks cool!

Next up, we headed to Nassau.  If you have read my previous review of Nassau, you may grasp that I have not had the best of luck there! So sometimes I don’t even get off the ship anymore, but this May I had a goal…Pirate Republic Brewery.  It is right by the port and I love tasting local beers so that was my mission.  In addition, the beach soccer world cup was going on that week and while the day we were there was the rest day, so no games, I did want to see if I could find a t-shirt or something from the event…It is Soccer Mom Travels after all!

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Looks like we got the best parking spot!  And look!!! Right there!!  Pirate Republic Brewery!!  How close is that!!

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Off we headed to find soccer stuff then stop for a nice frosty local beer…ah the best laid plans.  Seems I have no luck in Nassau at all.  We tried to get a taxi over to the stadium since the vendors were telling us that the only place that would sell t-shirts like that were over at the stadium, but then the taxi driver said that the vendors wouldn’t even be open because there were no games.  Sigh.  Okay so that plan is shot…at least I still have my frosty local beer to look forward to, right??

Um. No.

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While I heartily applaud the policy of not drinking and voting, this would once again add to my luck in Nassau.  So once again I am leaving Nassau without doing any of the things I actually planned to do.  Lucky I still have two more trips scheduled with stops in Nassau.  I will get to you yet Pirate Republic!

Overall, I really do like these short cruises on the smaller ships.  I am very lucky to live within driving distance which makes it possible to do these.  Next up?  Freedom of the Seas in the Western Mediterranean.  Spoiler…Yes, it was as awesome as it sounds!

Part 8 (Kusadasi, Turkey) – Cruising Venice, The Greek Isles, and the Eastern Mediterranean

In the days leading up to this cruise, Turkey had a failed coup attempt.  With that in mind, many cruise ships were skipping or replacing stops in Turkey with either a sea day, or another port in the area.  Our cruise had made no announcement as to what the plan was at that point, and when asked, the officers stated that they were monitoring the situation and would let us know, but the plan was to stop in Turkey and in fact, Royal Caribbean had collected all non-EU passports per the Turkish governments request (standard procedure even before the coup attempt).

All this to say that until the day before our port stop in Kusadasi, we still had no idea if we were stopping or not.  I had reserved a taxi service through Taxi Service for Ephesus to take us from the port up to Ephesus.  I was wary of joining a traditional tour because I did not want to get bullied into a “demonstration” that often turns into a hard sell.  I had read that most organized tours have a stop either at a carpet weaver or a leather shop included in the tour, and in fact all of the ship sponsored tours had this included stop as well.  The carpet weavers in Turkey are some of the best in the world, but lets be honest…who has room in their luggage for carpeting?

So instead I reserved just a taxi to meet us at the port, drop us off at the top gate to Ephesus, and come back a few hours later and pick us up at the bottom gate.  I made the reservations via email, the price was agreed upon in advance and Hasan was very responsive and easy to work with.  In addition, his English was nearly perfect and I have no reservations recommending this company should you ever find yourself near Kusadasi port.

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It is a beautiful port area, hills rising steeply from the ocean with condos/apartments/hotels built all up the hillside.  That little tiny island out there?  Well that is the namesake, the actual Kusadasi – Bird Island.  Here is a better picture:

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There are shops and restaurants all along the pier so a very easy port to navigate by foot if all you are looking for is nosh and trinkets.  We however, were headed to Ephesus.

We walked out of the port area past armed guards.  We were told that we were the first cruise ship to stop at Kusadasi since the failed coup attempt, only 16 days prior.  It was very clear that the merchants were happy to have us (tourists) back.

At the taxi stand, we met Hasan and he directed us to our driver for the day.  He ensured that we had his number and knew how to reach him if necessary.  While Hasan’s English was excellent, our driver’s was not.  He tried really hard and he was so nice though that we hardly minded.  Ephesus is about 30km from Kusadasi through some lovely countryside.  Our driver pointed out some other local attractions along the way and tried to teach us the names of some of the fruits in Turkish!

When we reached the top gate, our driver found a friend that spoke English and we arranged a time to meet at the lower gate for pickup.  Our driver assured us that if we happened to be a few minutes late that he would certainly not leave us stranded!  We also purchased a guide book and some water…it is HOT in Turkey in July and we would come to find out, not much shade in Ephesus.

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So these ruins are a bit different than the ones in Athens or Olympia.  These ruins are being actively restored.  They are only using the original pieces that they find so different buildings are in different states of, well ruin.  The other thing that I love about Ephesus is how accessible everything is.  You can walk in, around, and through almost all of the building sites.

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We added the Terrace Houses to our admission.  These were the houses of the wealthy citizens of Ephesus and are currently being excavated and restored.  As we were there on a Sunday, no one was working but evidence of excavation was all around.  And the houses themselves were incredible!

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The color on the walls and the mosaics on the floors are so remarkably preserved.  It was an awesome thing to see and if you are ever in Ephesus, make sure you take the side tour into the Terrace Houses.  It is hot and there are a lot of stairs, but it is worth it!

Coming out of the Terrace Houses, you arrive at the restored facade to the Library of Celsus.  Its Stunning.

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This two story library was home to thousands of scrolls (you know…what books used to be!) making it the third largest library in the world in its day.  This building has been restored somewhat. But since they will only use original parts for restoration, it is never going to be fully restored.

Nearby is the Temple of Hadrian…we seem to have seen a lot of stuff dedicated to this guy!

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And of course, my favorite…the theaters!  There are several in Ephesus from smaller ones used for Senate meetings and such:

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I’ve heard that this guy Paul lived here around 50AD for a few years.  He gave daily talks to scholars here.  Those talks eventually became “Ephesians” in a pretty famous book…that’s impressive stuff!

To the massive ampitheater used for concerts as well as gladiator battles and other community building exercises!!

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This one seats approximately 25,000.  See that little black dot?  That’s my son.  He climbed all those stairs!!  I did not, in case you were wondering!!

The Commercial Agora is where business got done.  You can see in this picture the parts that have been unearthed but not restored to actual buildings.

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 So after a very warm yet amazing trip through history we made our way out the lower gates to meet our driver. If you EVER make it to Ephesus, take note: start at the top and walk downhill! We passed people going the other way and they really looked like they would welcome death. Remember it is hot…very hot. And there are no trees or shady spots to rest. Add to that an uphill climb and I can totally understand their open arming the grim reaper.

But forwarned is forarmed so we worked with gravity and not against it. And as we made our way out of the historic site, we invariably walked into vendor central. These guys are well aware of the demographics of their clientele and proudly touted their stock of chilled water bottles…or the one that won our hearts (and dollars) air conditioning!

One of the traditions we have as a family is that whatever country we visit, we buy the national team soccer jersey. So we were in the market for a Turkey jersey and as it happened, he had the air conditioning also!!
I find that very often I am faced with the stereotype of a woman not knowing her sports. This was very apparent in Turkey and I was VERY amused proving him wrong!! He took it in stride and in fact gave us a great deal on the jerseys once I proved my knowledge!

So having gotten our fill of history and our quota of Turkish soccer jerseys, we headed back to the port with our driver who was exactly where we said he would be waiting.

Back at the port we stopped to shop a bit and get something to eat. We had some of the best calamari I have ever had and when we stopped the owner to compliment the food, he simply pointed to the the water and said, “Of course it’s good. I caught it right there!”  

All in all, this was our favorite port so far and I am so glad we stopped. I would go back for a land vacation without hesitation!


Back on the boat, we visited our favvie post port bar for Aperol Spritzs. Our next port is Santorini. 

Could it really be as awesome as everyone said??